It was customary at the courts of Europe during the seventeenth century - indeed, right up to the French Revolution - for monarchs to keep dwarfs. Together with other "prodigia" (monsters), these "errors of Nature", as one contemporary referred to them, provided a source of amusement. Considered rare attractions at the royal courts, dwarfs were bought and sold throughout Europe. They were decked with finery, adorned with jewellery and gold, and shown off at ceremonies of state, or on festive occasions. Often, they were presented as gifts, or as a surprise spectacle, a fashion to which not even church dignitaries were immune.
This "fashion", which had spread to Europe from the Ottoman court, was linked to yet another, similar custom. For their entertainment aristocratic households would keep a number of fools who were privileged to make witty or pointed remarks and to engage in provocative parodies, thus challenging legal and conventional taboos and providing an anarchic counter-balance to the vacuum of critical opinion at court. Undoubtedly, this showed the survival - albeit in isolated pockets, and in much reduced form - of the medieval tradition of "fooles", whose carnivalesque origins probably lay in the Roman Saturnalia, and whose burlesque goings-on set up a kind of popular political and ecclesiastical opposition for a short period of every year (between the end of December and Epiphany on 6 January), exposing many feudal institutions, especially those of the church, to ridicule and criticism. The tradition of oppositional jest had then entered the early absolutist courts via the travelling conjurers, the "ioculatores".
Since the late fifteenth century there had been an increasing demand for the normative ideals of logic in reason and regularity in appearance - the attempt, for example, to establish a canon of proportions for the expression of ideal beauty. Deviations from such norms must increasingly have come to appear comical, or grotesque, or as crimes against a nature whose very essence was thought to be ordered uniformity. Indeed, without the existence of norms, the mere sight of deformed, crippled or mad people, or the lack, or imaginary lack, of "iudicum" (powers of discernment), could not have provided occasion for scorn and ridicule. At the same time, the image of the fool tended to oscillate between one that saw him as unnatural, the representive of everything that was evil and sinful, and its opposite, in which the fool's wisdom lay precisely in his innate access to a language mentally distorted enough to adequately describe the absurdity of reality. The latter notion played a role in Erasmianism, a humanist school of thought, widespread among the Spanish, educated élite of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, based on works such as Erasmus's "In Praise of Folly" (Moriae encomion). Enlightened parodies of conventional thinking now began to attribute a positive meaning to terms such as "stultitia" (stupidity) and "insania" (madness). It is not known whether Diego Velázquez sympathised with Erasmianism. Nonetheless, his sympathy for the fools and dwarfs of the Spanish court is obvious: in the pathos and humane understanding demonstrated by the single portraits with which he (and he alone) paid tribute to them. It has been pointed out that courtly etiquette - for seating arrangements at audiences, for example, or for seatnumbering at bull-fights - placed Velázquez in the same category as dwarfs and fools. As "Pintor del Rey" (Painter to the King) he was relegated to the fourth row among the barbers and footmen.